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The genesis of Half a King
Joe Abercrombie tells us how and why he made the jump to writing his first YA fantasy book - Half a King...
After writing six big, complex, unapologetically adult fantasy novels set in the same world and with a relatively similar tone, I felt the need to try my hand at something at least slightly different.
I’d had a meeting with Nick Lake, young adult publisher at Harper Collins, some years before. He liked my adult fantasy and thought I might have a good young adult book in me. At the time I had my plate full but the notion stuck with me.
It may be damaging my reputation for unrelenting cynicism, but a few years later I was at a zany zone with my kids. Soft play, ball bath, slides, you know the type of thing. There happened to be a boy with a malformed hand there, who was having some trouble joining in fully with the rest. I was thinking how tough that must be. Then I started thinking how much tougher it would be in the medieval sort of world I tend to work in. Especially in a viking or a saxon inspired world, where fighting in the shield wall was at the heart of their culture. Where standing strong with your brothers, and holding a shield for the man at your shoulder, was the mark of being a man.
And that was the seed for Half a King. Yarvi is the second son of a warrior king in a viking inspired world, but born with a useless hand, he’s unable to hold a shield, or tie a knot, or pull an oar, or do any of the things that are expected of a man, and especially of a king. So while his older brother is groomed for the Black Chair, he’s been forced to give up his birthright and become a Minister, a kind of healer and advisor, traditionally a woman’s role. But when his father and brother are betrayed and murdered, Yarvi is forced to become king himself – or half a king, at least – and use the sharp wits and knowledge he has learned as a Minister to gain vengeance against his enemies. Enemies outside his kingdom, and enemies within...
My main touchstones in the young adult arena were things I read and loved when I was younger – notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical books (Blood Feud especially) and John Christopher’s post-apocalyptic The Sword of the Spirits. These were books full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices. These were not books that ever preached, or talked down to their audience. But I also had in mind the powerful voices of some adult viking fiction, like Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships, Robert Low’s The Whale Road, Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo Saxon Chronicles and others.
I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults. Just young ones. What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults (like me) want to read. People in that 12-18 age range are dealing with serious issues of sex, money, identity, responsibility. The last thing they want to be is talked down to. What adult does?
So my aim was not to pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there. To write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic. A slap in the face on every page. No wasted space. Simpler in its narrative, perhaps, but certainly not simpler in the way it was written or in the themes that it tackles. Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, moral complexity, shocks and challenges, visceral action, and rich vein of dark humour that I fondly imagine my other books have offered. Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.
I hope that I’ve succeeded in doing that with Half a King. But you, of course, will be the judge..